Response to parliamentary questions on the National Security Council meeting held on 23 September 2020 and on Brexit
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National Security Council meeting held on 23 September 2020
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
First of all, I'd like to express my amazement at how linguistic imperfections are the main concern for some people rather than the gravity of the situation.
But it's no big deal, or "c'est pas grave", as the French expression goes.
The whole of Europe is indeed facing a resurgence in the epidemic – and Belgium, where the situation is serious, is no exception. The number of infections is increasing, and so are the number of hospitalisations.
We know that the situation can also deteriorate quickly. Therefore, we must act upstream to avoid having to take more drastic measures later.
Acting upstream means always following the 'backbone' of all the other rules, in other words complying with the six golden rules. Sometimes, the importance of these six golden rules is underestimated. However, just because they were presented a while ago doesn't mean that they're not one of the main ways – but not the only way – to slow the epidemic.
We will have to do without a vaccine for several more months, and so we must strike a balance between the potential of a new way of life that allows some semblance of a return to normal, both socially and economically, and the need to protect everybody's health.
Since the start of the crisis, we've been working together tirelessly and resolutely at all levels of power with experts and players in healthcare and the various other relevant sectors to maintain that balance. 'Together' also means with the public who have demonstrated great courage and adaptability, because all of us have to do our bit to resolve the situation.
We've asked the experts from [the evaluation unit] CELEVAL to work on this new approach – an approach that combines protecting the health of everybody in our country and deploying measures that must be bearable for all.
The experts have done a crucial job in recent weeks, for which I'm very grateful, in outlining the broad thrust of what this new way of life and the accompanying constraints will look like.
The aim is to ensure that we can change the rules and restrictions based on the epidemiological situation, with differing rollout at national, regional and provincial levels.
The approach CELEVAL worked on still needs to be added to and more consultations carried out about it, meaning that it cannot be validated at this stage, and I will come back to this.
The National Security Council meeting that was held yesterday, then, took as its starting point the items in the CELEVAL report that were ready to be decided on, specifically mask-wearing, the organisation of events and social contacts. Discussions about other aspects are planned.
The National Security Council meeting's decisions announced yesterday are based on the current epidemiological situation and expert opinions. Despite what some say, we have not overly relaxed the current rules.
In terms of mask-wearing, we've reiterated and emphasised the basic rule which involves an obligation to wear a mask when social distancing can't be guaranteed. However, maintaining this obligation outside – in every circumstance, always and everywhere – is pointless and undermines public support, when the situation doesn't justify this. I don't call that a relaxation of the rules.
As for organising events, we've given the organisers of weddings or similar events the ability to work under the same, existing conditions as the hospitality sector. We now know that it is possible for work to be carried out safely by complying with the stringent rules laid down for that sector. This harmonisation – and it is a harmonisation, not a relaxation of the rules – was absolutely vital for organisers of such events to survive. There is no reason to make a distinction between them and others.
However, there is still work to do. Improvements to existing protocols must be made, and there must be consultations between CELEVAL, the events sector, for example businesses in the night-time economy and other businesses that have been subject to overly severe restrictions.
We must also give hope to those seriously affected by the crisis.
The issue of social contacts has also been much discussed. At yesterday's National Security Council meeting, we decided to provide new opportunities for social contact to make the rules more bearable.
It is better to have a rule that is slightly looser but followed by a lot of people than a rule that is too strict which nobody adheres to. That's exactly the criticism that was levelled at the famed social bubble, leading to this being modified.
This approach to social contacts isn't set in stone. It's important to remember that. The approach is modified to reflect changes in the epidemiological situation. The more serious the health situation, the greater the reduction in the number of recommended social contacts.
I can already tell you that there is a major risk that we'll have to impose more restrictions because the trend in the health situation in our country is indeed going in the wrong direction. But given the current situation, we can now establish a rule of close contacts with a maximum of five people.
Again, therefore, everybody should take responsibility to avoid further restrictions in the future.
As I've just told you, changes to the measures will depend on how the epidemiological situation evolves. This trend will be determined by a set of factors but mainly by the number of hospital admissions. This set of indicators taken together is what I've called the 'epidemiological barometer'.
That barometer will not only allow everybody to see what position the epidemiological situation has reached across the country or in a particular region or province, but will also enable the current measures to be implemented differentially based on how the situation evolves.
That task hasn't been completed yet, but this will happen over the next few days. There are several other outstanding problems: the set of rules isn't flexible enough; as I said, consultations are still needed; the model itself must be adjusted to take into account, for example, where patients live in the case of cities with a large number of hospitals; and finally, the switch from one level to another mustn't be too abrupt. Therefore, there must be some level of predictability.
The current barometer is colour-coded. There are already many colour codes in our country, and in Europe in general. This makes it crucial to ensure as much harmonisation as possible to avoid creating confusion, although we know that such harmonisation isn't easy to put in place.
The main point of this barometer is to incorporate the main aspects of life in our society into the various levels of this barometer. This will mean that people know what to expect. So this work still needs to be done.
There was also a series of communication-related questions I'd still like to address, as well as things the authorities still need to do.
As far as communication is concerned, it's true that this is absolutely key. And it's true that several things are currently getting in the way of communication. The first is that I have to admit that the rules have developed over time, and so whenever a change is made, this requires the public to get used to a new rule again. This is complicated and obviously it will be necessary whenever we put something new in place to repeat and reiterate the new step and then to keep doing this.
And it's true that when different people say different things, indicating that something is better or something is worse, it actually makes things even more difficult. But of course, debate is healthy in a democracy.
However, I think it must be made clear and driven home that in any case the six rules must be complied with.
This has led some people to accuse us of laying all the blame at the public's door. That just isn't right. This is a team effort, with teamwork between the various levels of power and between the authorities and the public, and everybody must do their bit.
And I agree with Ms Fonck in her question about testing. You saw yesterday that at the National Security Council meeting there was a lot of talk about the front line, because they're currently affected most by concerns about the number of tests and the number of results. And so there is indeed still a lot of work to be done.
And then there was a question that was rather off topic. This crisis obviously does have major social, economic and health consequences, which will probably be even more considerable in the future. This must be taken seriously by the current government, but as I've said many times, it must also be taken seriously by a future government with a parliamentary majority here, which I very much hope will be established. As for who gets which role, you know, I think as always that we must focus on the substance, and you're the only person I hear talking about this other matter.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
On 31 December 2020, the transition period provided for in the withdrawal agreement will end. There is no scope for an extension within negotiations at the moment, to avoid undermining everybody's preparations.
While the timetable is tight, the European Union is working tirelessly to secure a deal. There are still issues to resolve in areas of vital interest to the European Union: not only the level playing field, as you mentioned, but also fisheries.
Should the United Kingdom's attitude change, it is still quite possible for a deal to be finalised by mid-October. If no deal is secured, the European Council will have to look at the various options on the table at its meeting on 15 October. However, we aren't yet at that stage.
Belgium has always advocated a united European approach and argued for the most ambitious agreement possible.
The European Union must not fall into a trap by deciding to end the negotiations. All of us as EU Member States must remain level-headed and united behind our chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.
In line with the conclusions of the special meeting of the European Council in July 2020, the European Commission is expected to present an initiative on the Brexit Adjustment Reserve by November.
The creation of this fund itself is a good thing, as the reserve wasn't initially envisaged in the negotiations. It was created in part thanks to pressure applied by Belgium.
Unfortunately, the value of this fund isn't expected to increase whatever the outcome of the negotiations might be. What is important now is to ensure that the initiative to be presented by the European Commission responds effectively to our needs and that we have maximum access to the resources of this reserve.
Bearing these aspects in mind, discussions are looking at working out the relevant criteria for Belgium. This is, of course, being done in consultation with the federated entities in the bodies existing for this purpose.
In terms of business support, during the negotiations we have of course talked a lot about the financial framework based on which the reserve fund came into being. But this won't be enough and we still have to see how this fund will be distributed and who the money will be allocated to.
You should know that at federal level we will try to support all businesses, but this is a competence that generally also falls to the Regions. It's also very important to realise that we're still in the coronavirus crisis and that many companies will suffer economically from this, regardless of Brexit. This makes it very difficult to distinguish between companies that will suffer only because of Brexit or only because of coronavirus. I think that in the current climate we should try to help all businesses. That's the main point I'd like to address at federal level and of course also with the regional competences.